I was asked about white privilege for the 8,735,624th time.
The question was something along the lines of “how come it’s mostly white people that are writing about white privilege, but there are no black people writing about it?”
The argument went that several prominent black people, like wealthy, well-educated, middle-class, American social theorist, Thomas Sowell, and extraordinarily wealthy, penguin narrator and Batman-enabler, Morgan Freeman, say that white privilege doesn’t exist – there just aren’t many black voices talking about white privilege.
So first of all, why shouldn’t white people write about white privilege? It’s sometimes really hard for people have meaningful conversations about issues of privilege. When someone suggests you might be advantaged in some way, it’s understandable that you might get defensive – you worked for what you have, right?
But getting defensive is just a way of shutting down a conversation because you’re not comfortable having it. So more white people – just more people – writing about and discussing white privilege is a good thing, not a bad one.
“People get defensive when it’s pointed out that they might enjoy privilege. They assume they’re under attack, or that they should be made to feel guilty.”
Second, the idea that black people aren’t writing about race, privilege, and other issues just isn’t true. Here are just a few examples of black writers you can read if you actually want to – obviously there are many, many more:
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness – Michelle Alexander
- Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
- The Good Immigrant – Nikesh Shukla
- Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? – Beverly Daniel Tatum
- Writing What We Like – Yolisa Qunta
- Black and British – A Forgotten History – David Olusoga
- The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin
- The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
- Negroland: A Memoir – Margo Jefferson
- Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine
- Race Matters – Cornell West
- So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo
One of the reasons people of colour (I don’t really like that phrase by the way, but it serves a purpose) find this stuff so exhausting is that we’re the ones who are constantly looked to in these conversations to provide the answers.
Like when people say they just don’t see the fuss about calling black people ‘coloured’, or shooting them in the face while they’re taking a nap, it’s people of colour who feel the need to step up and explain again and again. But if you really wanted to understand, you could find out pretty quickly what the damned fuss is about. And it’s the same here. If you want to find black authors, they’re out there.
But you have to ask yourself why black voices aren’t as prominent as white ones. Let’s dig down a little bit here. I’m not suggesting this is a massive conspiracy to diminish black voices (*side glance to camera 2*), but we do have to look at why they are often muted in literature, academia, television, art, and so on.
This is white privilege in the form of ‘white as the default option’. Allow me to demonstrate. Take a second and imagine, in your mind, an academic, writing at their desk…
Did you picture a black woman with dreads?
Probably not, and neither would I, because the image that we have stored in our collective consciousness is that of an old, white dude surrounded by many leather bound books. Does that make us individually racist? No, of course not. It just means that our view of normal is dominated by whiteness.
To pre-empt, yes there are examples of where that works the other way too. Picture a star athlete, a basketball player, a hip-hop artist, a drug-dealer, a crack addict… you can see where I’m going with that, right?
And this ‘collective cognitive caucasity’ and preconceived ideas about who can be what, is why it’s sometimes hard for people to believe that the black person they encounter does actually live in this apartment block, is cashing a genuine check, isn’t wearing a suit because he has a court case, or is just going about her business doing entirely fucking normal things.
There are a handful of conservative black voices saying that white privilege doesn’t exist. There are also some black people who don’t think golliwogs are offensive, some who will happily call each other N****r, and some who believe the earth is flat.
But you have to balance that up with the overwhelming majority of black people saying otherwise. We can’t just use John Barnes to devalue 1000 examples, just because those 1000 examples don’t spring to mind as easily.
So what can we do about our collective cognitive caucasity? How can we broaden our world view? Well first of all, we have to actually want to do it, but once that’s decided, here are some suggestions.
Are you really listening? See if you can notice times when you might be inadvertently (or on purpose) silencing people you’re in conversation with. It’s easy to dismiss someone else’s entirely valid lived experience by saying things like “I don’t see what you’re so upset about,” or “well what about…” or the classic, “why do you always have to bring race into it?” In most conversations, we’re just waiting for our turn to talk. Try genuinely listening instead.
What are you reading? Whatever you’re interested in – poetry, physics, history, art, engineering, literature… how many of the books on your bookshelf, or favourite websites/blogs are written by or about people of colour? If the answer is close to zero, ask yourself why that is? Then do something about it!
What are you doing with your voice? Look at who you follow on social media – who do you retweet? Who’s voices do you amplify, who’s voices do you ignore? Which articles, posts, and statuses do you read and like, but then hesitate to share because you’d rather just keep it to cats falling off bits of furniture, or you think it’s not your fight, or you worry about what people might think of you? Use your voice.
I thank you in advance.